Rising from the Plains

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

There is “more than a little of the humanities” in the subject of geology, John McPhee advises, and it is his considerable achievement in Rising from the Plains and its predecessors, Basin and Range (1981), and In Suspect Terrain (1983), to bring that subject with its elements of the human, as well as its scientific complexity, into the realm of the common reader. One of America’s foremost narrative essayists, McPhee skillfully employs the novelistic techniques of character analysis and dramatic action to explore his subjects, which are often individuals involved in their work. Seeking to determine the larger significance of these individuals, he usually ascertains how they are involved, at least indirectly, in social issues, such as the effects of industrial development on the environment. These characteristics made his Coming into the Country (1977), a book on Alaska and Alaskans, a modern classic.

For this series on geology and geologists, McPhee’s lifelong interest in the subject provides him with the technical background to integrate earth science writing with his customary social analysis and character profiles. The book’s focus is the effects of various aspects of geology on man: on his economic possibilities; on his health; and, through the surface topology of the physical landscape, on his spiritual nature. To accomplish this last element—the most elusive, and yet aesthetically the most challenging—requires the delicate touch of the poet, and McPhee possesses that touch.

Certainly one element of the humanities in the subject of geology is man, the geologist; in this volume, the geologist whom McPhee portrays is David Love, who was born in the Wind River Basin in central Wyoming in 1913 and who grew up on an isolated ranch there. Considered “the grand old man of Rocky Mountain geology,” Love is supervisor of the United States Geological Survey’s environmental branch in Laramie. Section after section of the book opens with author McPhee talking with Love as he drives his Bronco along the vast open stretches of Wyoming’s Interstate 80. Love’s comments on the physical landscape provide McPhee an approach to presenting the more technical geological detail. Occasionally, the men stop along the interstate to explore the rock in roadcuts. (For the geologist, this period of great road building is a “godsend”; otherwise, streambeds are about the only place with exposed natural layers of rock.) The discussions on specific rock cuts and the geologies that they represent serve as portals to long digressions on the geological history of the major areas of Wyoming. McPhee always presents his material so that it has meaning for the reader; he links specific detail—the color of a rock, the shape of a mountain, the form of a valley—to general theory in an attempt to suggest the geological history of the state. “Wyoming,” McPhee declares, “suggests with emphasis the page-one principle of reading in rock the record of the earth.” This record shows that surface appearances are constantly changing, that the earth itself “grows, shrinks, compresses, spreads, disintegrates and disappears.” Since every scene is temporary and is composed of fragments from other previous scenes, one must understand the series of previous scenes to comprehend fully the present landscape. Geology places strong demands on the imagination, which is one of its central humanistic aspects.

The geological history of Wyoming is linked to the geological history of the planet. One idea progresses to another as McPhee works toward composing what geologists term “the Big Picture”—an account of the geological formation of Earth—in the reader’s mind. Such an attempt is admirable, but for it to be successful, the common reader must struggle through some geological terms. That reader can profitably make his way through Rising from the Plains without reading Basin and Range, but it would be to his advantage to read first the initial book of the series. For in that volume McPhee relates the general history of geology, tracing the development of the science from its inception through the great breakthroughs in geophysics and plate theory of the 1957-1967 decade. In this general narrative, the reader develops a sense of the formation of the specific terms—the system, period, stage and age names—and thus overcomes the barrier in reading about geology. Once that barrier is overcome, the subsequent technical information falls into place as it is presented.

Fortunately, the common reader will not need to overcome any geological material to enjoy one of the central aspects of Rising from the Plains: the social and familial history of the Love Ranch and the Wind River Basin area, as developed from the diary of Miss Ethel Waxham, David Love’s mother. The narrative follows her arrival in Wyoming as the new schoolteacher in the autumn of 1905, direct from Wellesley College with her Phi Beta Kappa key hanging from a chain around her...

(The entire section is 2056 words.)